Child's Perspective in Hemingway's My Old Man

Term Paper, 2000

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. The I-narrator
2a. Modus
2b. Person
2c. Perspective

3. Child’s perspective
3a. speech pattern
3b. fallibility (Booth, implied author)

4. Portrait of the father
4a. The motive
4b. matured?

1. Introduction

“My Old Man”, one of the earliest prose fiction works of Ernest Hemingway, originally appeared in Hemingway’s first book-length publication Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923). This complex narrative, which details the developing relationship between a father and son as told from the point of view of the young narrator and son, Joe Butler, has generated considerable attention since its publication. What criticism there is generally focuses on one of the following two areas of inquiry: the influence of Sherwood Anderson on Hemingway, and patterns of narrative revelation.

The first aspect is stressed especially by Jackson J. Benson when he compares "My Old Man" and Anderson's "I Want To Know Why" similar in view, subject, plot, tone, and diction.

"Both stories are about boys in a race track setting. Both boys admire an older man, are influenced by him, and then find their admiration betrayed. Both boys are left puzzled and hurt by the experience. Each story is told in the first person by the boy who is characterized by slightly broken grammar and the use of adolescent slang 'gee', 'gosh', and 'swell'." (Benson, 273)

Christian Messinger argues that "Anderson sensed both the longing for success that gripped track people and the disorder that accompanied overidentification with horses and racing." (Christian K. Messinger, 278) The following, however, will leave aside a possible influence by Anderson[1] but rather concentrates on the employed narrating device of a child's raconteur. Although it suggests itself to compare the two narration modes, I am afraid I have to narrow my focus for the following examination. As Carl Ficken points out

"At the beginning of his writing career in the 1920's, Hemingway was working at (…) the problem of point of view. In his first publication, Three Stories and Ten Poems, 1923, he told two of the stories through an omniscient third-person narrator and the other in the first person (…) "My Old Man" in fact, remains one of the classical examples of the unreliable first person narrator." (Carl Ficken, 94)

The following essay will thus discuss the second field of critical interest concerning "My Old Man": the narrative revelation or more specific Hemingway's technique of establishing a child's perspective. Based on Franz K. Stanzel’s three categories person, perspective and modus I will outline the typical features of the autobiographical I-narrator as Stanzel states them as relevant for interpretation. As I have pointed out the criteria that compose the I narrating situation I will on these grounds discuss further how a child’s perspective as of the I-narrator, Joe, is established in “My Old Man” and what function it serves in the story.

2. The I-narrator

Stanzel, in the tradition of rhetoric criticism (Erzählforschung), refers to the art of mediation (“Mittelbarkeit”) as opposed to dramatization (“unmittelbares Drama”) as the principal means for the author of a narrating art to form his subject-matter.

"Jede Anstrengung, die Mittelbarkeit des Erzählens zu gestalten, erhöht die Literarizität (…) eines Romans oder einer Kurzgeschichte, d.h. die ganz spezifische Möglichkeit des Werkes, als literarisches und ästhetisches Gebilde zu wirken.“ (Stanzel, 1989, 17)

He summarizes three typical narrating situations (“Erzählsituationen”/”ES”) that constitute the opposite poles of mediation: the I-narrator (“Ich-ES”), the omniscient narrator (“auktoriale ES”) and the personal narrating (reflector) (“personale ES”). He, however, stresses the prototypical nature of these types that only exist in this purity in theory and are usually found in varied mixtures and uses.

"Die Widerspenstigkeit des Werkes im Detail oder im Ganzen gegenüber dem Typus gehört zu seinem Wesen ebenso, wie die ideelle Stimmigkeit, die gedankliche Geschlossenheit zum Wesen des Idealtypus gehört.“ Wir können sagen, "daß durch die Verfehlung des Idealtypus in der Gestaltung der ES u.U. einer Erzählung eher poetische Qualität oder Literarizität zuwächst als durch eine möglichst weitgehende Annäherung an einen Idealtypus.“ (Stanzel, 1989, 20)

In “Theorie des Erzählens” Stanzel proposes a triadic scheme of the determining constituents of “Mittelbarkeit” which are person, perspective and modus respectively. In each narrating fashion there is one dominating constituent: The I-narrator is basically settled on its sharing the realm of being (Seinsbereich) with the characters in the story, the omniscient narrator holds an outer perspective towards the events and characters, and the personal narration or reflector is characterized by a seemingly unmediated mode of presentation of the facts. These three poles arranged in a circular scheme suggest binary oppositions with clear demarcations as well as fluent modulation of the basic narrating fashions. Stanzel thus chooses the triadic system to demonstrate these criteria not as fixed opposing poles but as continuous forms.

"Die typischen Erzählsituationen werden also durch die Triade Modus, Person und Perspektive konstituiert. Jede dieser Konstituenten gestattet eine Vielzahl von Realisationen, die sich als Formenkontinua darstellen lassen, weil sie die Strecke oder Skala zwischen den beiden extremen Möglichkeiten graduell abgestuft und kontinuierlich auffüllen.“ (Stanzel, 1989, 75)

Stanzel’s binary oppositions are as follows: 1. narrator-reflector, 2. identity of realm of being with the other characters (I-ES)- nonidentity of realm of being (omniscient/he narrator), 3.inner perspective-outer perspective. (Typenkreis)

He clearly makes a distinction between Käthe Hamburgers “Erzählfunktion” and his examination of a concrete mediator figure. Hamburger negates the omniscient narrator as a person[2] and reduces the personal narrator in general to a narrating function. She stresses the author’s act of genesis (not reference to actual facts) and therefore reduces a narrator’s character to its function for the author to tell the story.

"Das Erzählen (…) ist eine Funktion, durch die das Erzählte erzeugt wird, die Erzählfunktion (...), der erzählende Dichter ist kein Aussagesubjekt, er erzählt nicht von Personen und Dingen, sondern er erzählt die Personen und Dinge (...) Zwischen dem Erzählten und dem Erzählen besteht kein Relations- und das heißt Aussageverhältnis, sondern ein Funktionszusammenhang.“ (Hamburger, 113)

Hamburgers thesis (as well as Booth’s “implied author”) belong for Stanzel to the concept of the genesis of narration, i.e. composing fictional reality. He locates this concept in the so called “Tiefenstruktur”. Stanzel’s typology of the “Erzählsituationen”, however, is situated on the level of transmission with the means of a narrator figure, the so called “Oberflächenstruktur”, that is immediately accessible for the reader without further theoretical operations. It includes all elements that serve the transmission of the story to the reader. The narrator is the main vehicle of this transmission process. He/she/it can be examined as a character who can take action, can display the narrating act in a certain style, or can vanish behind the story’s characters to be almost “intangible” for the reader’s attention. The narrator is thus seen as referring to actual facts in his/her/its diegetic world. The criterion of the narrating mediation (“Mittelbarkeit des Erzählens”) that distinguishes the different narrating situations (“Erzählsituationen”) is therefore to be located on the “Oberflächenstruktur” only. It is suffice to say that the act of producing the concept and the form of mediation are hardly distinguishable but rather simultaneous, reciprocally developing processes. The narration strategies of the “Oberflächenstruktur” are, however, not totally determined by the “Tiefenstruktur”. Stanzel, therefore, sees this distinction as a mere methodological construction to win clear definitions of possible narrating situations.

2a. Modus

Stanzel’s first criterion to identify the narrator is the modus or point of view distinction between a narrator and reflector, i.e. commented/summarizing narration and a scenic presentation. The former is a narrator who selects and judges the facts. He/she acts as an informer who tells the story to a listener (either the reader or a diegetic character). His/her manner of narration is therefore to whatever degree subject to interpretation. The scenic presentation is mediated by a so called reflector through whose eyes the facts seem merely accessible without any commentary while they are happening. This mode creates the illusion of immediacy, an unmediated staging of events. Kristin Morrison calls the former “speaker of the narrative words” (narrator) and the latter “knower of the narrative story” (reflector). (Sister Kristin Morrison, 245-255) The reflector is thus not a judging character. He/she tells us the story "unconsciously" and does not address anyone either a reader or another character in the story. The manner of his/her recount is therefore not tinted by good or bad will, right or false judgment. The he/she as “referentless pronoun”[3] can be limited in vision but cannot consciously leave out important information or distort the facts by his/her own “will”. These two opposing modes of narration which could be defined as conscious narration and unconscious narration clearly create two different narrating functions (narrator-reflector).

Joe is a narrator figure, who consciously tells his story to an audience (here: the reader). He is therefore interesting in terms of his judgment and evaluation of the events- especially as a kid whose terms of judgment might be characterized as immature at least dissimilar to the assumed opinion of the reader. In chapter 4a. I will therefore discuss Joe’s opinion towards his father by analyzing the portrait of him his son creates for the reader.

2b. Person

With the category person Stanzel differentiates the two poles of the personal I and an omniscient/he narrator by their “realm of being” (“Seinsbereich”): The “I” principally shares its realm with the other characters in the story it is narrating and the omniscient/he raconteur is placed outside the diegetic entity he/she creates. The “I” therefore possesses a body the other does not. The omniscient/he narrator may, however, appear as a person (could even call himself/herself “I”) but the fact of his physical limitations is not of existential value.[4]

"An einem auktorialen Erzähler können zwar recht ausgeprägte persönliche Züge sichtbar werden (…), doch werden diese Persönlichkeitsmerkmale nicht mit der Vorstellung einer bestimmten Körperlichkeit verknüpft. Wo dies in einem auktorialen Roman dennoch geschieht, bleibt dieser auktoriale Körper ein bloßer Funktionsmechanismus, der etwa am Schreibtisch sitzend die Feder übers Papier führt und der daher das auktoriale Ich nicht existentiell determiniert.“ (Stanzel, 1989, 124)

As another character who can be physically and/or emotionally involved in his/her own narration the I’s motive for stating the facts can be subject of its mediation by the author and is therefore particularly interesting for interpretation.

"Der Hilfsbegriff ‚Ich mit Leib’ für den Ich-Erzähler lässt einen Aspekt, der sich aus der Identität der Seinsbereiche in der Ich-Erzählung ergibt, deutlich hervortreten, nämlich die Bindung des Erzählaktes an die existentiellen Bedingungen des Erzähler-Ich in der dargestellten Wirklichkeit. Damit wird, wie schon angedeutet, die Motivation für die besondere Art und Weise des Erzählaktes und der Vorgang der Auswahl des Erzählten einschaubar und aus dem aufgezeigten Zusammenhang interpretierbar. (...) In einer auktorialen Er-Erzählung können wir dagegen nur literarische oder ästhetische Konventionen als den Erzählakt bedingende Faktoren in Rechnung stellen.“ (Stanzel, 1989, 129)

What motivates Joe to tell us his story? How far is it of existential value for him as I-narrator in which way he presents us his experience. In “My Old Man” the I-narrator’s relationship with his father is the central subject. To find a likely motivation of the kid narrator, his attitude towards his father in terms of what impact his father’s character has in Joe’s life will be discussed in chapter 4a. As Joe tells his story with a distance ("I guess looking at it, now, (…)") the relationship between the talking "I" and the acting "I" (Stanzel, 1955) might, above that, reveal a change in judgment or even a maturing process and will be analyzed in chapter 4b.


[1] Hemingway vehemently denied the claimed influence of his elder patron that overshadowed his artist ego. With the bitter satire Torrents of Spring (1927) he publicly recoiled from Anderson and broke with him as a friend.

[2] Stanzel sees potentials of creating character even in an omniscient narrating situation and prefers the term “he narrator” (“Er-Erzähler”) to comprise both otherwise separated characteristics

[3] "Ein Erzählauftakt mittels Reflektorfigur ereignet sich in der Regel ohne alle jene Präliminarien, die sonst den Leser in die Geschichte einführen. Diese Eröffnung erhält ihren besonderen Akzent aber dadurch, daß die Reflektorfigur bei ihrer ersten Erwähnung fast immer in der weiter nicht definierten Gestalt des Personalpronomens 'Er' oder 'Sie' erscheint. Joseph M.Backus, der solche 'referentless pronoun(s)' 'nonsequential sequence-signals' nennt, hat diese Art des Erzählauftaktes in einer großen Zahl von amerikanischen Short Stories (…) untersucht." Vgl. J.M. Backus 'He came into her line of vision walking backward'. Nonsequential Sequence-Signals in Short Story Openings', Language Learning 15 (1965), 67f. (Stanzel, 210)

[4] There are also peripheral I-narrators: "Das thematische Ziel einer solcherart gestalteten Erzählung ist die um Verständnis des Außerordentlichen bemühte freundschaftlich-kongeniale Einfühlung des Erzählers in seinen Helden. Davon zu unterscheiden sind jene peripheren Ich-Erzähler, die in ihrer repräsentativen Typik als Kontrastfolie, als Gegensatz zum Helden zu verstehen sind. (Stanzel, 264)

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Child's Perspective in Hemingway's My Old Man
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
HS Childish 1st person perspective-artificial naivete?
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
515 KB
child, perspective, hemingway
Quote paper
Karin Ostertag (Author), 2000, Child's Perspective in Hemingway's My Old Man, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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